Just over fifteen years ago, Bryan Singer released his movie adaptation of X-Men and changed the course of superhero movies for a generation. That movie dared to take its spandex-clad mutants and their conflict seriously by replacing their Day-Glo uniforms for black-leather jumpsuits and injecting the CGI mayhem with a touch of metaphor. What if, Singer suggested, superpowers were a stand-in for sexuality?
Like science fiction, comic books are a nice reflection of the cultural anxieties of their time. (As created by a few Jewish kids during the Depression, Superman is a flying, bullet-proof alien who spends a lot of time looking out for the Common Man while trying his best to pass for human.) But they’re also pulpy rags that ignite the imaginations of their adolescent readers every bit as cheap as the paper they’re printed on. When Stan Lee invented the X-Men in 1963, the idea that mutants were simply born superpowered was a shortcut: without having to devote stacks of issues to increasingly nonsensical gamma-ray transformations, Lee could get right to the smashing and laser-beam action.
Still, it’s fun to read more into the setup: the first issue of the X-Men was published at the height of the Civil Rights movement. That the one side is devoted to peaceful coexistence while the other—dubbed the Brotherhood of Evil Mutants—to a more radical agenda seems almost too perfect.
And it is. What makes the comic such a potent creation is its flexibilitiy. Singer’s second entry, X2, included a cleverly rendered coming-out sequence and was a coup for those who wanted their blockbusters served with a dose of progressive ingenuity.
It was a novel idea, but novelty is fleeting. Within a decade, states were legalizing same-sex marriage and, next to the polished dexterity of Iron Man, what was once fresh seemed passé. After the tumult of the Bush administration and the financial crisis, everyone was in the mood for a little escapism. (The mood wasn’t that far from the one that introduced superheroes in the first place.) The franchise was rebooted in 2011 with X-Men: First Class, Matthew Vaughn’s singularly hip and zippy prequel set in the go-go ‘60s that seamlessly blended James Bond, John Frankenheimer-style political thrillers, and the Cuban Missile Crisis with the color-splash excitement of the original comic books. In Vaughn’s hands, the series’ overplotting was replaced by a snappy, hyper-stylized back and forth between its charismatic stars—none of it was supposed to be taken seriously.
Even though it didn’t include any of the marquee names that’d made the original series so successful, that movie was such a hit that Vaughn’s plan for a sequel—it’d open with the revelation that the metal-wielding villain Magneto was responsible for Oswald’s magic bullet—was scrapped, and Singer came back for an entry seemingly engineered to reign in First Class’s risks. That one idea encapsulates Vaughn’s playful, almost puckish approach to story and setting, and the differences between First Class and the sequel produced, Days of Future Past, are telling. Instead of a splashy genre riff, it works overtime against a gloomy palette to make sure the whole thing aligns with Singer’s self-involved vision. (As demonstrated in his debut, The Usual Suspects, Singer has a way with an individual sequence but is less sure handed with the whole.) By the end of Days of Future Past, only the most dedicated fans knew exactly what was going on.
So here we are at the Apocalypse. Even less interested in First Class’s sense of pop time and place than Days of Future Past—its prologue prominently features the Great Pyramids about a thousand years too early—Apocalypse is set primarily in 1983 and involves the havoc wrecked when a three-millennium-old mutant awakens at the height of the Reagan Era. There’s period-specific potential here: where would a former pharaoh fall on trickle-down? Lamborghini or Ferrari? Punk or new wave?
The movie doesn’t care—it’s as painfully single-minded as its villain, who’s disgusted by the twentieth century’s overindulgence (he longs for the simpler times of the Third Dynasty) and is on a mission to give history a hard reset. Less fascinated by cars, electricity, or indoor plumbing than one might guess, he steadfastly detests “systems,” “machines,” and “superpowers.” But the homonym of that last pet peeve—and the potential for metaphor that’s been this series’ stock in trade from the beginning—comes and goes. As Apocalypse launches the world’s caches of nuclear missiles, for a split second one wonders whether this very stupid movie might be making a connection between the United States, the USSR, and its own characters’ capacity to annihilate. Reagan had just launched a rhetorical and economic blitzkrieg on the struggling “Evil Empire” and for a moment it seems Apocalypse’s goals align with the Great Communicator. Really, he just wants to absorb and incorporate the abilities of other mutants like shooting fireworks out of his hands.
Were it not for a “Thriller” jacket here or a pair of Wayfarers there, Apocalypse could be set in any decade. (A scene in an East German fight club that seems stuck in the Weimar Era is especially confounding.) Singer’s lack of period detail is apparent from the beginning, when we zip from ancient Egypt to the present via a baffling time tunnel that includes arbitrary signifiers of leaps forward in technology like the Mona Lisa and the steam engine. Is evolution the same as invention?
I’d say no. This franchise hasn’t evolved so much as reinvented itself for fanboys obsessed with continuity, as if Singer thought audiences cared more about minor details of narrative continuity than simply having a good time. As for invention, even Apocalypse’s most exciting sequence—a time slowdown—is a souped-up retread of the previous entry’s slickest move. It’s a showstopper, but it’s not enough to inject life into this slog.
In their war against radicalism, the X-Men have always fought to preserve the status quo. But these movies have been at their best when they dare to be different. As Apocalypse sets out to scortch the world and reinvent it, one can’t help but sympathize. When the end doesn’t seem like such a bad idea, it’s best to just start over.
X-Men: Apocalypse. Directed by Bryan Singer. Written by Simon Kinberg. Starring James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, and Jennifer Lawrence. Opens in Kansas City on May 5th.